Historic opening of GCU Stadium is community rally
Story by Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
It didn’t take long for spectators such as U.S. soccer team legend Cobi Jones to find out what the hype around GCU Stadium was all about.
From the moment he flew into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, people asked the purpose for his visit. And when he said he was going to be a television analyst for the first soccer match at Grand Canyon University’s new stadium, natives raved about the University’s vast expansion. His visit left him raving, too.
“I had seen many commercials about GCU — the private Christian University — and that is really all I had known about it,” Jones said. “But when I heard about the addition of a new soccer stadium, I immediately knew I had to witness it. When we’re talking about the stadium and the atmosphere, this is truly one of a kind. To see soccer taken to heart by faculty, administrators, students and management — that’s something special.”
A sellout crowd of 6,402, the largest to ever see a college soccer game in Arizona, embraced a steamy summer night filled with a 4-2 GCU victory over Central Florida, dance music, food, entertainment and fireworks. It couldn’t have been more spectacular.
The celebration started early at Lopes Way when the Havocs, GCU’s nationally recognized student cheer section, led the March to the Match. It was a loud, blood-pumping experience that surprised 3-year-old Tristan Partee when he had his moment as an honorary Lope mascot. Seeing that the toddler was sitting on his father’s shoulders, the Havocs began shouting his name. Tristan threw up his tiny fingers and shouted, “Go, Lopes!”
The purple seats in the stadium filled up quickly, and five minutes before the game purple smoke signaled the entrance of thousands of students who ran around the field, waved their flags and lined up on the east side to welcome the team. Pastor Tim Griffin, GCU’s dean of students, led the opening prayer, and the Thundering Heard Pep Band performed the national anthem.
The crowd was loud right from the start of the game, and it went wild when, less than four minutes into the first half, GCU’s Damian German scored the first goal. Trumpets blared, towels were waved in the air, fans got on their feet and Thunder danced in the stands with a group of children giggling around him.
GCU alumnus Nick Halonen was with his wife, Keslie, their four children and neighbors. Together, they were a group of 16 in one of the front rows at the stadium’s west end.
“This place is crazy!” Halonen said, yelling over the noise of the crowd. “I love how many students are here, and this stadium — it’s beautiful!”
His son, Joshua, 6, said he wants to become a Lope someday, and it’s easy to see why. “A Lope for life!” his dad said.
GCU President Brian Mueller said the evening felt surreal, adding, “This is a big day — Grand Canyon University’s brand is getting to be about bringing people together as a community, and soccer is going to be one of those components that does exactly that.”
Dawn Rogers, who helped to bring the first NCAA Final Four to metro Phoenix, was in the VIP tailgate along with Mueller and other notable public figures. Staring at the open field below, Rogers said, “It’s so wonderful for soccer players to have a Division I institution in the state of Arizona because there is so much talent. It’s really impressive to see how GCU continues to evolve and change. It has really made a commitment to students and student athletes.”
The Lopes took a 3-1 lead into halftime and turned the field over to 22 youngsters of the Sereno Soccer Club, who had been anxiously warming up and stretching before going out to showcase their skills.
When they were asked to describe the moment in a few words, they shouted, “Awesome!”, “Amazing!” and “Epically epic!”
“I think every little kid should have this opportunity,” Soreno coach Derek Gayen said. “They love the environment and they love the atmosphere. These are their role models out here, and they feel like they’re being treated like celebrities. This is going to create a long-lasting memory.”
Sophomore Titus Converse, a member of the Havocs, played goalie as dozens of children lined up for the opportunity to kick a soccer ball into the net. For the special occasion, Converse sported a large diaper and painted his chest with a purple antelope.
“I’ve been asked a few times if I ever use the diaper — the answer is no,” Converse said. “I just wanted to see the smiles on all the kid’s faces and give students an atmosphere that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. Nothing makes me happier.”
Rain Hernandez and Evan Stormer of Arizonans for Children were delighted to be part of the celebration. Earlier this month, men’s soccer coach Schellas Hyndman awarded four children in foster care with scholarships and gave three group homes 50 tickets to attend the soccer game.
“This was such a huge act of generosity,” Hernandez said.
Stormer said giving a disadvantaged foster child and their mentors the opportunity to participate in a huge community-based sporting event was “awe-inspiring.”
At the end of the night, the GCU players said unity, discipline and effort were the key to their victory.
“Our play was great,” German said. “We got what we wanted, we got the results and the crowd helped us the whole game. At any game, it’s one of the greatest feelings to have fans as motivation when we feel like giving up. They are the extra breath we need to keep working hard.”
In the midst of the fireworks and cheering crowd on the field, Hyndman couldn’t have been prouder.
“I’ve coached many games in my career, but tonight was special,” he said.
Fan support and community effort can do amazing things, he said, and he hopes that the Stadium becomes “a hidden gem in the Valley.”
“It was a huge night for GCU soccer and Grand Canyon University because there was so much expectation and so much hype. I’m so happy, and we’re ready to find ways to get better,” he said.
At GCU, that feeling of continued progress is never-ending.
● For a slideshow from the game, click here.
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.